Who are the “Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief”? Sometimes, they are victims of democratic states, as the Tai Ji Men case demonstrates.
by Marco Respinti*
*A paper presented at the webinar “The Violent Crackdown on Tai Ji Men, 1996–2022,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on August 22, 2022, United Nations International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.
An article already published in Bitter Winter on September 5th, 2022.
The word “violence” derives from the Latin term “vis,” which means “force.” The kind of force implied in “violence” is the obligation to do something against one’s will. Violence is then a distorted notion and use of force.
While violence is always something negative, force is the capacity and power to make the objects of will possible. It has a fundamental moral side in the cognate term “fortitude,” which is one of the four cardinal virtues, or the hinge excellencies that are required for a virtuous life. They are well addressed by a whole Western tradition which includes Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Church Fathers, and the theologians of Scholasticism. Scientists use the expression “force” too, to indicate what can change the motion of an object. Physical forces have a magnitude and a direction, and a philosopher studying “teleology,” i.e., the science of purposes (“teloi” in Greek), would find this rather fascinating, even acknowledging that philosophy and science use different methods.
Not by chance, “The Force” is the governing principle of the fictional “future remote” world of “Star Wars” created by American director George Lucas. I am mentioning it here quite seriously. “Star Wars”’ Force is both a physical energy and a mystical ubiquitous power, the two being sides of a same coin. Similarly to the real world, where “force” is both a philosophical notion and a parameter of physics, “Star Wars”’ Force has been analyzed by scholars of philosophy and religion, who have thoughtfully compared it to religious systems in the real world. While some suggests that the “Star Wars” idea ripened in the 1970’s New Age climate of the US East Coast, a stronger influence on Lucas are oriental spiritual ways, chiefly Taoism. In fact, “The Force” of “Star Wars” is divided between a light side and dark side, but ultimately it is the balance between the two that supports this fictional galaxy.
Explicitly, Lucas drew inspiration from American writer Joseph J. Campbell (1904–1987) who published in the field of comparative mythology, folklore, and religion. Campbell basically traces common archetypes in all different traditions to finally distill a singular, universal “monomyth.” While controversial among scholars, Campbell’s approach is what ignited in Lucas the idea of inventing a spiritual way, or even a religion, which could fit a secular age where the entertainment industry looms larger than churches, synagogues, and temples. He conceived it not as a substitute of religion in the real world, but as a literary suggestion of how spiritual need is basic in human beings.
Protestant Pastor Clayton Keenan, of the Christ Community Church, commented that “Star Wars”’ Force is “depicted as […] something supernatural within this universe, but it’s not the same thing as a personal god that Christians or Jews or Muslims might believe in. It’s this impersonal force that is in some ways this neutral, impersonal energy that is out there to be used for good or for evil.” Even some Muslims stated that a knight of the Force in the “Star Wars” fictional realm perfectly represents “what a true follower of Islam should be like.”
It should be underlined once more that the approach of Lucas belongs to the realm of fiction. A wise audience should not move away from this realm. Yet, there are also practitioners of “Jedism,” who created a real-life “religion” based on “Star Wars.” On the other hand, if we remain in the domain of fiction, Lucas’ experiment can be compared to that of English philologist and writer J.R.R. Tolkien (1892–1973). With his fictional creation based upon myth and religion, Tolkien tried to craft a “mythology for England” and indeed for the whole world.
Lucas and Tolkien’s effort remind me of Tai Ji Men. Of course, I am not suggesting that Tai Ji Men’s accounts of their spirituality and their case are fictional narratives. What I mean is that those authors’ cultural call for a healthy return to a spiritual dimension is what Tai Ji Men does in the real world.
Like Lucas and Tolkien’s fictional creations, the real-life Tai Ji Men movement is not a religion. Believers of different religions may join Tai Ji Men and experience no contradiction with their faiths. Tai Ji Men is a menpai (similar to a school) of self-cultivation based on a deep understating of the spiritual nature of human beings, and aimed at forging virtuous personal characters who will make the world a better place. Like the fictional universes of Lucas and Tolkien, Tai Ji Men is a somewhat new teaching but is deeply rooted in traditional wisdom and embraces both East and West. Based on the Taoist idea of the harmony of yin and yang, Tai Ji Men dizi (disciples) work for peace, understanding, harmony, and goodness. In a nutshell, Tai Ji Men is an exemplary testimony of force both as a moral virtue and as a notion of the science of physics: it moves people, and it makes things happen.
The dark side of force is violence. Evil, even the devil, cannot build: it can only destroy. Evil can only attack good. History gives us hundreds of examples where, as the saying goes, no good action goes unpunished. If Tai Ji Men suffers violence, it is because it does good.
The couple “violence” and “religion” consists of two concepts, violence perpetrated by religious groups and violence suffered by religious groups.
The first is based on the great misconception that God commands the killing of infidels. In fact, God doesn’t. Violence is the opposite of true religion and today is confined to marginal groups, condemned by holy scriptures and mainline clergy and theologians. Larger groups of believers believing in the same God whom violent religionists claim to adore repudiate their evil deeds. For this reason, the name “International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief” should perhaps be changed. As it is, it may seem at first sight to indicate a reference to violence perpetrated in the name of religion. In fact, United Nations Resolution 73/296 of May 28, 2019, clearly stated that the day was primarily instituted to commemorate the victims of violence perpetrated “against persons belonging to religious communities and religious minorities around the world,” although it also deplored that violence is sometimes committed using or misusing the name of religion.
As to violence suffered by religious groups, German-American philosopher Eric Voegelin (1901–1985) and his English disciple Michael Burleigh have something to say that is relevant to The Tai Ji men case too. They describe secular ideologies as “inverted religions,” i.e. non-religious responses to human needs that are essentially spiritual. The result is total deception and sorrow, with secular ideologies seizing the realm of faiths and offering an immanent creed that pretends to vindicate the “falsities” of religions.
In this model, the conflict between secularism and faith is a civil war between a light and a dark side of religion itself, the dark side of religion is fake religion, even if it uses the paraphernalia of religion. Totalitarian regimes show it well, but also democracies sometimes do.
The fury with which Tai Ji Men has been persecuted in Taiwan, within a democratic society, is a case in point. I am not suggesting that Taiwan is a fake democracy, acting as a totalitarian false god. I am asserting that the UN “International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief” should include in its list of trespassers also those who persecute believers, including Tai Ji Men, in the name of state ideologies or ideocracies, in both totalitarian and democratic regimes.
Again, I am not suggesting that Taiwan is not a democracy. This is not my opinion. I believe, however, that within Taiwan’s government there are non-democratic agencies and bureaucrats who violate freedom of religion or belief. These people may need to see the “Star Wars” franchise in theaters, and read Tolkien’s works, to be reminded of the insuppressible religious need and the futility to try to eradicate it. They may also need to study Voegelin and Burleigh on the serious injustices that secular “inverted religions” produce. Such readings and studies could perhaps persuade them that persecuting Tai Ji Men is not only wrong. It is useless, because, in the end spiritual force always wins against brutal violence.